Oddly, to listen to the sanitized Suburbianity of today, you’d think religion was all panacea and no sorrow. Nothing is more unbiblical than some of the nonsense that passes for Christianity, especially on the televised versions. Getting the victory is more about American optimism than biblical reality.
If you read the Psalms and listen to the blues, you get some balance in your soul. Throw in Job for good measure. The blues are about turning pain into prayer. One blues singer down in Mississippi said of his effort to teach the old blues to young boys, “I’m putting guitars in their hands instead of guns.” You can debate guns, but no debate about killing—killing breeds more killing. Despair leads to desperate things.
The blues is the choice to explore our pain rather than yield to it or collapse from it. It turns pain into prayer. One of the most familiar of all blues lines is a prayer found in the common Christian tradition in worship going all the way back to the first two centuries of Christianity, what the Catholics and Orthodox call the “Kyrie” for the word “Lord.” “Lord, have mercy.”
Lord, have mercy. You have to sing it right– Say it like this: “LO-rd HAAAAVE MER-cy
So I tried my hand at a blues song. I wrote “Widow of Zarephath Blues.” It was based on a simple little story in the Old Testament.
NRS 1 Kings 17:8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
Here is this widow, in Zarephath—foreigner in that time. Elijah goes to her, because Israel is devastated by drought, but even worse, by spiritual compromise and failure. Think about what she might be singing those words Elijah comes up to ask for something to eat. So I tried my hand. The song below is what I came up with.
She could have lived in North Carolina in 1931 or certain parts of any city. Back in December our church helped a single Mom make her car payment. She got evicted on December 23 with two kids. That’s blues.
Since our politicians are arguing about the 1% and the middle class, and since nobody seems to have anything to say about poor people, evicted people, homeless folks and folks on hard times, I’ll send this song out to you. Real faith is feeding your neighbor where there isn’t enough to go around. Hope we get around to it eventually. But until then, while they argue about spending money we borrowed before we made it, I’ll send this one out to the hard-times widows and their kin.
NRSV Luke 1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The first signs of the incarnation in the Christmas story is the moving of a child in a womb, a blessing before a birth, a declaration of faith, and a pregnant mother singing. This is, for Christianity, the hope of the world.
Perhaps the greatest critic of Christianity in the last century was not anyone that most average people know, but his arguments lasted until this day. The philosopher Nietsche attacked Christianity because of its adoration of humility and weakness. It was, he said, “the transvaluation of all values,” by which he meant that Christians adore all the virtues that lead to the collapse of humanity.
Perhaps our failings, along with our founding faith, Judaism, was a God who felled the mighty.
Christianity, declared Nietzsche, is the vengeance the slaves have taken upon their masters. Driven by resentment, “a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in imaginary revenge,” they have transvalued the morality of the aristocrats and have turned sweet into bitter and bitter into sweet.
Who is right? Mary or Nietsche? Is it power and will and human pride or humility and the song of the outcasts? Nietsche’s song is the song of children in competition: “I’m better than you-ou, I’m better than you-ou.” “Nanny, nanny, boo boo.”
Mary’s song bears some study for us. We sing things that come from the deepest places in us. Some people are ashamed to let their songs be heard, so they only sing them in their cars alone, or in the shower, but they sing. To sing is to release our rational minds and come from our hearts and center.
The question is, “Which song?”
I got an interesting CD several years back entitled, “The Seeger Sessions.” It’s a real turn for Springsteen—no rock and roll, acoustic, folk songs, and simple. It was a humbling experience for him to sing, because that rock-n-roll voice don’t sound the same without that wall of sound-a-round. It’s real, vulnerable, human, even though Bruce has a lot of instruments around him. It’s an interesting and wonderful experiment.
One of the haunting song there is an old Spiritual that revived in the Civil Rights days called “O, Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan.” It sounds very New Orleans early jazz-ragtime on Springsteen. If you want the old full mass choir gospel version, catch Aretha Franklin and choir in 1972 on “Amazing Grace.”
The “Mary” in that song is actually Miriam, the sister of Moses, who witnessed the miracle of the Exodus on the shores of the Sea when Pharoah’s armies were pursuing the fleeing band of former slaves to kill them. In a miraculous moment, the waters crash in upon the chariots and soldiers, vanquishing them. It is the birth of the nation of Israel, their saving event.
The lesson of that moment was, “It is not you who creates the nation, but only God. Never forget that you, too, were powerless slaves in Egypt, but God, the merciful, delivered you.” Miriam sang, according to the book of Exodus:
NRS Exodus 15:20-21 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
For over three thousand years, we’ve remembered that song, the pure joy of being saved when you thought it was all over. They had no weapons, no strategy except their faith in a mysterious God who promised.
That song re-emerged in the sufferings of poor black people in slavery in this country, then in their Christian musical tradition. One of my personal favorite versions is of blues singer Mississippi John Hurt singing in in his recordings in the 1920s. Then it re-emnerged as a folk favorite in the 1960s, though Pete Seeger, but Mississippi John Hurt’s is my personal favorite.
That same song resonates with Hannah and with Mary. It is the song of those who have nothing except God to count on.
Two women here—Elizabeth, who cannot have a child and God gives her one. Mary isn’t ready for one, but God gives him to her anyway. Mary is exultant not about something she wanted more than anything, but something she hadn’t even thought to wish for but God chose her to give the gift.
Mary’s song connects to the whole of scripture. But deeply rooted here is a stirring truth—she sees the “turning upside down” of all values in the world. The nobodies are somebodies to God. The forgotten are remembered. The lost are found.
Nietsche attacked Christianity for this very point as a “religion of weaklings.” One might say that given the church’s track record, we haven’t always felt too strongly about it, either. For we are constantly tempted to forsake the kingdom of Jesus for the seductions of Caesar. If we remember to give to the poor we are mighty quick to put the rich on our budget committees and seat them at places of prominence.
Scholars increasingly have doubted that Mary composed this song. Wouldn’t you know it? One of the few women in the New Testament to author something and we’ve taken it away with scholarship! One seminary professor has observed three profound truths about this song of Mary’s–
We’ve “spiritualized” the Christian life, making it only about our feelings and emotions, but God is concerned for all of human life, including social justice and physical needs.
We carry out his kingdom mission within a culture whose values are at odds with his values. If the shadow people are God’s focus, how can we be Jesus in the world if they are not our focus? Baptism is not a rite of passage but an initiation into discipleship and membership in a counter culture.
True worship is a spiritual preparation and entry into the agenda of God for our lives and the priorities of God for our lives.
Of course, the question is, “Does this mean exchanging one group of people in control for another?” And the answer is, “No.” What we need is not the same game with different players, but something that is beyond what we currently know. Walter Brueggemann has called it, “The Song of Impossibilty.”
But the beginning of any real change is in the imagination. To believe that my life could be different, that I could live another way, that there is hope where I see none.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous Christian ethicist of last century, sought to answer Nietsche. He said, “Yes, you are right. Christianity DOES turn the values of the world on its head.” Niebuhr wrote:
The Christian faith is centred in one who was born in a manger and who died upon the cross. This is really the source of the Christian transvaluation of all values. The Christian knows that the cross is the truth. In that standard he sees the ultimate success of what the world calls failure and the failure of what the world calls success. If the Christian should be, himself, a person who has gained success in the world and should have gained it by excellent qualities which the world is bound to honour, he will know nevertheless that these very qualities are particularly hazardous. He will not point a finger of scorn at the mighty, the noble and the wise; but he will look at his own life and detect the corruption of pride to which he has been tempted by his might and eminence and wisdom. If thus he counts all his worldly riches but loss he may be among the few who are chosen. The wise, the mighty and the noble are not necessarily lost because of their eminence. St. Paul merely declares with precise restraint that “not many are called.” Perhaps, like the rich, they may enter into the Kingdom of God through the needle’s eye.
I tell you this: it is not in our power that we are ever greatest, but in our kindness and compassion. Without these, we are reduced to the law of the jungle and the survival of the strongest. A society that worships only power is a society that will one day devour itself. Greed without stewardship becomes only self-absorption. Eventually, there is nothing sufficient to satisfy us. Power without service to others ultimately becomes what we have witnessed since Nietsche’s day—mass extermination and continuous war without peace and security that we continually fight to find.
We find ourselves still mired in the values of the old world. We seek security by power and it eludes us even more. We just officially ended the Iraq war, ten years and, conservatively, $709 billion, not to mention 4287 dead and over 30,000 wounded.
We have created entire television shows about people who collapse morally under the weight of success into drugs, addictions of various sorts and self-disaster. The way of power is not a way that will bring happiness. The way of power is not all that great when we see the damage left in its wake.
The church is not exempt from this way, either. We have worshiped the Mary who sang this revolutionary song, but we have more often preferred the methods of the world it undermines—power, influence, wealth and prosperity.
If I have to choose this Christmas, I choose Mary’s way. I realize that as I do that I, a prosperous American pastor living a privileged lifestyle in a comfortable place, immediately affirm values that undermine my way of life. It is to choose a way that will never let me be completely at ease.
But the alternative is worse. If I cannot immediately become one of the poor and forgotten of the world, I can let them into my heart as an act of my love for Jesus. I can be “poor in spirit,” as Luke put it, and pursue the way of humility and self-forgetting and generosity to others. I can follow the journey of surrender of my stubborn will and seek to obey the agenda of God in what I buy and how I live.
Mary’s song and Miriam’s song and Hannah’s song and the songs of the early Christians live on. When we sing them, we sing hope—that our lives can be different, that we can prevail with God’s help over all that is worst in us, that we can persevere in the struggle with our own failings. We might change the patterns of the past. We might find healing and health. We might make a difference in the world.
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drowned
O Mary, don’t you weep
Well if I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep
One of these days about twelve o clock,
This old world’s going to reel and rock
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep
When I get to heaven goin’ to sing and shout
Nobody there for turn me out
Pharaoh’s army got drowned
O Mary don’t you weep
Do we have any idea what we’re singing?
Brown, Raymond E., “The Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation, and the Magnificat,” Worship, 1988.
Burghardt, William, S.J., “Gospel Joy, Christian Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
Lovette, Roger, “A Vision of Church,” The Living Pulpit, 2000.
Martin, James P., “Luke 1:39-47, Expository Article,” Interpretation, 1982.
Miller, Patrick D., “The Church’s First Theologian,” Theology Today, 1999.
Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
Trible, Phyllis, “Meeting Mary through Luke,” The Living Pulpit, 2001.
Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni, “Blessed Are You,” Brethren Life and Thought, 2005. Poetry.